Read THOMAS BETTERTON of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. III, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on

Almost every circumstance relating to the life of this celebrated actor, is exposed to dispute, and his manner of first coming on the stage, as well as the action of his younger years have been controverted.  He was son of Mr. Betterton, undercook to king Charles the Ist, and was born in Tothill-street Westminster, some time in the year 1635.  Having received the rudiments of a genteel education, and discovering a great propensity to books, it was once proposed he should have been educated to some learned profession; but the violence and confusion of the times putting this out of the power of his family, he was at his own request bound apprentice to a bookseller, one Mr. Holden, a man of some eminence, and then happy in the friendship of Sir William Davenant.  In the year 1656 it is probable Mr. Betterton made his first appearance on the stage, under the direction of Sir William, at the Opera-house in Charter-house-yard.  It is said, that going frequently to the stage about his mailer’s business, gave Betterton the first notion of it, who shewed such indications of a theatrical genius, that Sir William readily accepted him as a performer.  Immediately after the restoration two distinct companies were formed by royal authority; the first in virtue of a patent granted to Henry Killegrew, Esq; called the king’s company, the other in virtue of a patent granted to Sir William Davenant, which was stiled the duke’s company. The former acted at the theatre royal in Drury-lane, the other at that in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields.  In order that the theatres might be decorated to the utmost advantage, and want none of the embellishments used abroad, Mr. Betterton, by command of Charles ii. went to Paris, to take a view of the French stage, that he might the better judge what would contribute to the improvement of our own.  Upon his return, Mr. Betterton introduced moving scenes into our theatre, which before had the stage only hung with tapestry.  The scenes no doubt help the representation, by giving the spectator a view of the place, and increase the distress, by making the deception more powerful, and afflicting the mind with greater sensibility.  The theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields being very inconvenient, another was built for them in Dorset-Garden, called the duke’s theatre, to which they removed and followed their profession with great success, during all that reign of pleasure.

The stage at this time was so much the care of the state, that when any disputes arose, they were generally decided by his majesty himself or the duke of York, and frequently canvassed in the circle.  Mr. Cibber assigns very good reasons, why at this time, theatrical amusements were so much in vogue; the first is, that after a long eclipse of gallantry during the rage of the civil war, people returned to it with double ardour; the next is, that women were then introduced on the stage, their parts formerly being supplied by boys, or effeminate young men, of which the famous Kynaston possessed the capital parts.  When any art is carried to perfection, it seldom happens, that at that particular period, the profits arising from it are high; and at this time the advantages of playing were very inconsiderable:  Mr. Hart the greatest performer at the king’s theatre, had but three pounds a week, and Mr. Betterton, then but young, very probably had not so much, and besides, benefits then were things unheard of.

In 1670 Mr. Betterton married a gentlewoman on the same stage, one Mrs. Saunderson, who excelled as an actress, every thing but her own conduct in life.  In her, he was compleatly happy, and by their joint endeavours even in those days, they were able not only to acquire a genteel subsistence, but also to save what might support them in an advanced age.

After Sir William Davenant’s death, the patent came into the hands of his son, Dr. Charles Davenant, so well known to the world by his political, writings; but, whether his genius was less fit than his father’s for such an administration, or the king’s Company were really superior to his in acting, we cannot determine; but they gained upon the town, and Dr. Davenant was obliged to have recourse to the dramatic opera, rich scenes, and fine music, to support the stage on which Betterton played.  The Dr. himself wrote the Opera of Circe, which came first on the stage in 1675, and was received with, such applause, as gave hopes of succeeding in this new way.  The same year a Pastoral, called Calista, or the Chaste Nymph, written by Mr. Crowne, at the desire of queen Katherine, was represented at court; and the ladies, Mary and Anne, daughters to the duke of York, played parts in it.  On this occasion Mr. Betterton instructed the actors, and Mrs. Betterton gave lessons to the princesses; in grateful remembrance of which queen Anne settled a pension of 100 l. per annum upon her.  During this time an emulation subsisted between the two companies, and a theatrical war was proclaimed aloud, in which the town reaped the advantage, by seeing the parts performed with the greater life.  The duke’s company however maintained it’s superiority, by means of the new-invented artillery, of music, machines, and scenery, and other underhand dealings, and bribing of actors in the opposite faction from performing their duty.  By these measures, a coalition was effected, and the two companies joined together, and being united formed one of the perfectest that ever filled a stage, in 1682.  It was in this united company that the merit of Betterton shone with unrivalled lustre, and having survived the great actors on whose model he had formed himself he was at liberty to discover his genius in its full extent, by replacing many of them with advantage in these very characters, in which, during their life-times, they had been thought inimitable; and all who have a taste for scenical entertainments cannot but thank the present laureat, for preserving for them so lively a portrait of Betterton, and painting him in so true a light, that without the imputation of blind adulation, he may be justly stiled the British Roscius.

This account is too important and picturesque to be here omitted; and it would be an injury to Betterton not to shew him in that commanding light, in which the best judge of that species of excellence has placed him.

“Betterton was an actor, as Shakespear was an author, both without competitors! form’d for the mutual assistance, and illustration of each others genius! how Shakespear wrote, all men who have a taste for nature may read, and know but with what higher rapture would he still be read, could they conceive how Betterton play’d him! then might they know, the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write!  Pity it is, that the momentary beauties flowing from an harmonious elocution cannot, like those of poetry, be their own record! that the animated graces of the player can live no longer than the instant breath and motion that presents them; or at belt can but faintly glimmer through the memory, or imperfect attestation of a few surviving spectators.  Could how Betterton spoke, be as easily known as what he spoke; then might you see the muse of Shakespear in her triumph, with all their beauties in their belt array, rising into real life, and charming her beholders.  But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of description, how shall I shew you Betterton?  Should I therefore tell you, that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Mackbeths, and Brutus’s, whom you may have seen since his time have fallen far short of him:  This still would give you no idea of his particular excellence.  Let us see then what a particular comparison may do! whether that may yet draw him nearer to you?

You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first appearance of his father’s spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining vociferation requisite to express rage and fury, and the house has thundered with applause; tho’ the misguided actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a passion into rags am the more bold to offer you this particular instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him, to see this scene acted, made the same observation, asking me with some surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a passion with the Ghost, which though it might have astonished, it had not provok’d him? for you may observe that in this beautiful speech, the passion never rises beyond an almost breathless astonishment, or an impatience, limited by filial reverence, to enquire into the suspected wrongs that may have rais’d him from his peaceful tomb! and a desire to know what a spirit so seemingly distress, might wish or enjoin a sorrowful son to execute towards his future quiet in the grave? this was the light into which Betterton threw this scene; which he open’d with a pause of mute amazement! then rising slowly, to a solemn, trembling voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the spectator, as to himself! and in the descriptive part of the natural emotions which the ghastly vision gave him, the boldness of his expostulation was still governed by decency, manly, but not braving; his voice never rising into that seeming outrage, or wild defiance of what he naturally rever’d.  But alas! to preserve this medium, between mouthing, and meaning too little, to keep the attention more pleasingly awake, by a tempered spirit, than by meer vehemence of voice, is of all the master-strokes of an actor the most difficult to reach.  In this none yet have equall’d Betterton.  But I am unwilling to shew his superiority only by recounting the errors of those, who now cannot answer to them; let their farther failings therefore be forgotten! or rather shall I in some measure excuse them? for I am not yet sure, that they might not be as much owing to the false judgment of the spectator, as the actor.  While the million are so apt to be transported, when the drum of their ear is so roundly rattled; while they take the life of elocution to lie in the strength of the lungs, it is no wonder the actor, whose end is applause, should be so often tempted, at this easy rate, to excite it.  Shall I go a little farther? and allow that this extreme is more pardonable than its opposite error.  I mean that dangerous affectation of the monotone, or solemn sameness of pronunciation, which to my ear is insupportable; for of all faults that so frequently pass upon the vulgar, that of flatness will have the fewest admirers.  That this is an error of ancient standing seems evident by what Hamlet says, in his instructions to the players, viz.

  Be not too tame, neither, &c.

The Actor, doubtless, is as strongly ty’d down to the rule of Horace, as the writer.

      Si vis me flere, dolendum est
  Primum ipsi tibi

He that feels not himself the passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping audience:  But this never was the fault of Betterton; and it has often amaz’d me, to see those who soon came after him, throw out in some parts of a character, a just and graceful spirit, which Betterton himself could not but have applauded.  And yet in the equally shining passages of the same character, have heavily dragg’d the sentiment along, like a dead weight; with a long ton’d voice, and absent eye, as if they had fairly forgot what they were about:  If you have never made this observation, I am contented you should not know where to apply it.

A farther excellence in Betterton, was that he could vary his spirit to the different characters he acted.  Those wild impatient starts, that fierce and flaming fire, which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur) when the Betterton Brutus was provoked, in his dispute with Cassius, his spirit flew only to his eye; his steady look alone supply’d that terror, which he disdain’d, an intemperance in his voice should rise to.  Thus, with a settled dignity of contempt, like an unheeding rock, he repell’d upon himself the foam of Cassius.  Perhaps the very words of Shakespear will better let you into my meaning: 

  Must I give way, and room, to your rash choler? 
  Shall I be frighted when a madman flares?

And a little after,

  There is no terror, Cassius, in your looks! &c.

Not but, in some part of this scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his temper is not under this suppression, but opens into that warmth which becomes a man of virtue; yet this is that hasty spark of anger, which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse.

But with whatever strength of nature we see the poet shew, at once, the philosopher and the héroe, yet the image of the actor’s excellence will be still imperfect to you, unless language cou’d put colours in our words to paint the voice with.

Et si vis similem pingere, pinge sonum, is enjoining an impossibility.  The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his portraits of great persons seem to think; a Shakespear goes farther yet, and tells you what his pictures thought; a Betterton steps beyond ’em both, and calls them from the grave, to breathe, and be themselves again, in feature, speech, and motion.  When the skilful actor shews you all these powers united, he gratifies at once your eye, your ear, and your understanding.  To conceive the pleasure rising from such harmony, you must have been present at it! ’tis not to be told you!

Thus was Betterton happy in his fortune, in the notice of his sovereign, in his fame and character, and in a general respect of all ranks of life; thus happy might he have continued, had he not been persuaded to attempt becoming rich, and unluckily engaged in a scheme that swept away all his capital, and left him in real distress.  This accident fell out in 1692; and is of too particular a kind to pass unnoticed.  Mr. Betterton had a great many friends amongst the wealthy traders in the city, and so amiable was his private life, that all who knew him were concerned, and interested in his success:  Amongst these, there was a gentleman, whose name the author of his life thinks proper to conceal, who entered into the strictest amity with this actor.  This gentleman in the year 1692 was concerned in an adventure to the East-Indies, upon the footing then allowed by the company’s charter, which vessels so employed were stiled interlopers.  The project of success was great, the gain unusually high; and this induced Mr. Betterton, to whom his friend offered any share in the business he pleased, to think of so large a sum as eight-thousand pounds; but it was not for himself, as he had no such sum in his power:  and whoever considers the situation of the stage at that time will need no other argument to convince him of it.  Yet he had another friend whom, he was willing to oblige, which was the famous Dr. Radcliffe; so Mr. Betterton advanced somewhat more than two-thousand pounds, which was his all, and the Dr. made it up eight-thousand.  The vessel sailed to the East-Indies, and made as prosperous a voyage as those concerned in her could wish, and the war with France being then, very warm, the captain very prudently came home north about, and arrived safe in Ireland; but in his passage from thence he was taken by the French.  His cargo was upwards of 120,000 l. which ruined Mr. Betterton, and broke the fortune and heart of his friend in the city:  As for doctor Radcliffe, he expressed great concern for Mr. Betterton, but none for himself; the Dr. merrily consoled himself with observing, ’that it was only trotting up 200 pair of stairs more, and things are as they were.’

This accident, however fatal to Mr. Betterton’s fortune, yet proved not so to his peace, for he bore it without murmur, and even without mention; so far from entertaining resentment against his friend in the city, who doubtless meant him well, he continued his intimacy till his death, and after his decease took his only daughter under his protection, and watched over her education till she thought proper to dispose of herself in marriage to Mr. Bowman the player, whose behaviour was such, as to gain the esteem of all that knew him; he has not been many years dead, and reflected credit on the reports of the excellency of the old stage.

Such the virtue, such the honour of Mr. Betterton! who in his private character was as amiable as any he borrowed from the poets, and therefore was always deservedly considered as the head of the theatre, though vetted there with very little power.  The managers, as the companies were now united, exercised the mod despotic stage-tyranny; and obliged our author to remonstrate to them the hardships they inflicted on their actors, and represent that bad policy of the few, forgetting their obligations to the many.  This language in the ears of the theatrical ministry, sounded like treason; and therefore, instead of considering how to remedy the mischiefs complained of, they bent their thoughts to get rid of their monitor:  as if the not hearing of faults was equivalent to mending them.  It was with this view they began to give away some of Betterton’s first parts to young actors, supposing this would abate his influence.  This policy ruined them, and assisted him:  The public resented their having plays ill acted when they knew they might have better.

The best players attached themselves wholly to Betterton, and desired him to turn his thoughts on some method of procuring himself and them justice.  Thus theatrical despotism produced its own definition, and the very steps taken to render Betterton desperate, pointed out the way for his deliverance.  Mr. Betterton, who had a general acquaintance with people of fashion, represented his case to them, and at last by the interposition of the earl of Dorset, a patent was granted him for building a new play-house in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, which he effected by a subscription.  The patentees, in order to make head against them, got over to their party Mr. Williams, and Mrs. Mountford, both eminent players; they had also recruits from the country, but with all the art of which they were capable, they continued still unequal to Mr. Betterton’s company.  The new theatre was opened in 1695, with very great advantages:  Mr. Congreve accepted of a share with this company, as Mr. Dryden had formerly with the king’s; and the first play they acted was Congreve’s Comedy of Love for Love.  The king honoured it with his presence, there was a large and splendid audience, Mr. Betterton spoke a Prologue, and Mrs. Bracegirdle an Epilogue suited to the occasion, and it appeared by the reception they met with, that the town knew how to reward the merit of those the patentees used so ill.  But with all these vast advantages, Betterton’s company were not able to maintain this flow of prosperity, beyond two or three seasons:  Mr. Congreve was a slow writer, Vanbrugh, and Mr. Cibber, who wrote for the other house, were more expeditious; and if they did not finish, they at least writ pleasing Comedies.

The frequency of new pieces, however, gave such a turn in their favour, that Betterton’s company with all their merit, had been undone, had not the Mourning Bride, and the Way of the World, come like reprieves, and saved them from the last gasp.  In a few years however, it appearing plainly, that without a new support from their friends, it was impossible for them to maintain their superiority, or indépendance; the patrons of Mr. Betterton set about a new subscription, for building a theatre in the Hay-market, under the direction of Sir John Vanbrugh, which was finished in 1706; and was to be conducted upon a new plan; music and scenery to be intermixed with the drama, which with the novelty of a new house, was likely to retrieve Mr. Betterton’s affairs.  This favour was kindly received by Mr. Betterton; but he was now grown old, his health and strength much impaired by constant application, and his fortune still worse than his health; he chose therefore (as a mutinous spirit, occasioned by disappointments, grew up amongst the actors) to decline the offer, and so put the whole design under the conduct of Sir John Vanbrugh, and Mr. Congreve, the latter of whom soon abandoned it entirely; and Mr. Betterton’s strength failing, many of the old players dying, and other accidents intervening, a reunion of the companies became absolutely necessary, and soon after took place.

Hitherto, Betterton is considered as at the head of his company, and the affairs of the stage are naturally connected with his, as the transactions of a nation are interwoven with the life of a prince.  After our author reached seventy, his infirmities grew upon him greatly, his fits of the gout were more lasting, and more severe:  His circumstances also, which had not been mended since he took upon him the conduct of the theatre, grew more necessitous, and all this joined to his wife’s ill state of health, made his condition melancholy, at a time when the highest affluence could not have made them chearful.  Yet under all these pressures, he kept up his spirit, and though less active, was as serene as ever.  The public in those days, had a grateful remembrance of the pleasure Betterton had given them, and would not suffer so distinguished, and so deserving a man, after fifty-years service, to withdraw, till he had received from them some marks of their favour.

In the spring of 1709 a benefit was granted to Mr. Betterton, and the play of Love for Love was acted for that purpose.  Two of the best actresses that ever graced the stage appeared on it upon that occasion, tho’ they had long quitted it, to render the benefit more advantageous:  The part of Valentine was performed by Mr. Betterton, Angelica by Mrs. Bracegirdle, and Mrs. Barry performed that of Frail.  The epilogue was written by Mr. Rowe.  Mrs. Bracegirdle, Mrs. Barry, and Mr. Betterton, appeared on the stage together, and the ladies taking hold of him, represented his infirmities of age, and pleaded his ancient merit, in a very natural and moving manner:  This epilogue is exquisite in its kind.  The profits arising from that benefit, we are told, amounted to 500 l.  He had also a promise that the favour should be annually continued.

These extraordinary acts of public gratitude had a proper effect upon Mr. Betterton; who instead of indulging himself on their bounty, exerted the spirit given by this generosity, in their service, and appeared and acted as often as his health would permit.  On the 20th of September following, in particular, he performed the part of Hamlet, with such vivacity, as well as justice, that it gave ample satisfaction to the best judges.  This activity in the winter kept off the gout longer than usual, but the fit returning in the spring, was the more unlucky, as it happened at the time of his benefit, when the success of his play was sure to depend in a great measure upon his own performance.  The play he made choice of was the Maid’s Tragedy, in which he acted the part of Melantius; and notice was accordingly given by his good friend the Tatler; but the fit intervened; and that he might not disappoint the town, Mr. Betterton was forced to submit to outward applications, to reduce the swelling of his feet:  Which had such an effect, that he was able to appear on the stage, though he was obliged to use a slipper.  He acted that day, says the Laureat, with unusual spirit, and briskness, by which he obtained universal applause; but this could not prevent his paying a very dear price for these marks of approbation, since the gouty humour, repelled by fomentations, soon seized upon the nobler parts; which being perhaps weakened by his extraordinary fatigue on that occasion, he was not able to make a long resistance:  But on the 28th of April, 1710, he paid the debt to nature; and by his death occasioned the most undissembled mourning amongst people of rank and fashion.

His behaviour as a man, and his abilities as a player, raised his character, and procured him the esteem of all worthy and good men; and such honours were paid his memory, as only his memory could deserve.

On the second of May, his corpse was with much ceremony interred in Westminster Abbey, and the excellent author of the Tatler, has given such an account of the solemnity of it, as will outlast the Abbey itself.  And it is no small mortification to us, that it is inconsistent with our proposed bounds, to transcribe the whole:  It is writ with a noble spirit; there is in it an air of solemnity and grandeur; the thoughts rise naturally from one another; they fill the mind with an awful dread, and consecrate Mr. Betterton to immortality, with the warmth of friendship, heightened by admiration.

As to the character of this great man in his profession, the reader need but reflect on Mr. Colley Cibber’s account here inserted, who was well qualified to judge, and who, in his History of the Stage, has drawn the most striking pictures that ever were exhibited; even the famous lord Clarendon, whose great excellence is characterising, is not more happy in that particular, than the Laureat; no one can read his portraits of the players, without imagining he sees the very actors before his eyes, their air, their attitudes, their gesticulations.

Mr. Betterton was a man of great study and application; and, with respect to the subjects that employed his attention, he was as much a master of them as any man.  He was an excellent critic, more especially on Shakespear, and Fletcher.  Mr. Rowe, who was a good judge, and also studied the same authors with deep attention, gives this testimony in his favour, and celebrates, in the warmest manner, Betterton’s critical abilities.  His knowledge of Shakespear’s merit, gave him so strong, and so perfect an esteem for him, that he made a pilgrimage into Staffordshire to visit his tomb, and to collect whatever particulars tradition might have preserved in relation to his history; and these he freely communicated to the same friend, who candidly acknowledges, that the Memoirs of Shakespear’s Life he published, were the produce of that journey, and freely bestowed upon him by the collector.  Mr. Booth, who knew him only in his decline, frequently made mention of him, and said, he never saw him either off, or on the stage, without learning something from him; he frequently observed, that Mr. Betterton was no actor, but he put on his part with his clothes, and was the very man he undertook to be, ’till the play was over, and nothing more.  So exact was he in following nature, that the look of surprize he assumed in the character of Hamlet so astonished Booth (when he first personated the Ghost) as to disable him for some moments from going on.  He was so communicative, that in the most capital parts, he would enter into the grounds of his action, and explain, the principles of his art.  He was an admirable master of the action of the stage, considered as independent of sentiment; and knew perfectly the connection, and business of the scenes, so as to attract, preserve, and satisfy the attention of art audience:  An art extremely necessary to an actor, and very difficult to be attained.

What demonstrated his thorough skill in dramatic entertainments, was, his own performance, which was sufficient to establish a high reputation, independent of his other merit.  As he had the happiness to pass through life without reproach, a felicity few attain, so he was equally happy in the choice of a wife, with whom he spent his days in domestic quiet, though they were of very different tempers; he was naturally gay and chearful, she of a melancholy reserved disposition.  She was so strongly affected by his death, which was, in some measure, sudden, that she ran distracted, tho’ she appeared rather a prudent and constant, than a fond and passionate wife:  She was a great ornament to the stage, and her death, which happened soon after, was a public loss.

The Laureat, in his Apology, thus characterises her:  ’She was, says he, though far advanced in years, so great a mistress of nature, that even Mrs. Barry, who acted Lady Macbeth after her, could not in that part, with all her superior strength, and melody of voice, throw out those quick and careless strokes of terror, from the disorder of a guilty mind, which the other gave us, with a facility in her manner that rendered them at once tremendous and delightful.  Time could not impair her skill, though it brought her person to decay:  she was to the last the admiration of all true judges of nature, and lovers of Shakespear, in whose plays she chiefly excelled, and without a rival.  When she quitted the stage, several good actresses were the better for her instruction.  She was a woman of an unblemished and sober life, and had the honour to teach Queen Anne, when Princess, the part of Semandra in Mithridates, which she acted at court in King Charles’s time.  After the death of Mr. Betterton, that Princess, when Queen, ordered her a pension for life, but she lived not to receive more than the first half year of it.’  Thus we have seen, that it is not at all impossible for persons of real worth, to transfer a reputation acquired on the stage, to the characters they possess in real life, and it often happens, as in the words of the poet,

  That scenic virtue forms the rising age,
  And truth displays her radiance from the stage.

The following are Mr. Betterton’s dramatic works;

1.  The Woman made a Justice; a Comedy.

2.  The Unjust Judge, or Appius and Virginia; a Tragedy, written originally by Mr. John Webster, an old poet, who lived in the reign of James I. It was altered only by Mr. Betterton, who was so cautious, and reserved upon this head, that it was by accident the fact was known, at least with certainty.

3.  The Amorous Widow, or the Wanton Wife, a Play, written on the plan of Moliere’s George Dandin.  The Amorous Widow has an under-plot interwoven, to accommodate the piece to the prevailing English taste.  Is was acted with great applause, but Mr. Betterton, during his life, could never be induced to publish it; so that it came into the world as a posthumous performance.

The chief merit of this, and his other pieces, lies in the exact disposition of the scenes; their just length, great propriety, and natural connexions; and of how great consequence this is to the fate of either tragedy or comedy, may be learned from all Banks’s plays, which, though they have nothing else to recommend them, yet never fail to move an audience, much more than some justly esteemed superior.  Who ever saw Banks’s earl of Essex represented without tears; how few bestow them upon the Cato of Addison.

Besides these pieces, Betterton wrote several occasional Poems, translations of Chaucer’s Fables, and other little exercises.  In a word, to sum up all that we have been saying, with regard to the character of this extraordinary person, as he was the most perfect model of dramatic action, so was he the most unblemished pattern of private and social qualities:  Happy is it for that player who imitates him in the one, and still more happy that man who copies him in the other.